A few weeks ago, the husband and I decided to invest in a Gault Millau, one of the best restaurant guide books in France. Granted, these days you can use the internet for your restaurant searches – with reviews written by foodies, gourmets and normal people like me . But when those reviews make El Rancho – the “mexican that isn’t” restaurant chain here in France – one of the top finds in Aix, I lost a lot of respect for anyone posting a review on their iPhone. After all, after a pitcher of margaritas one’s judgment is significantly impaired in women, driving and physical ability – why not taste buds as well?
Anyway, there’s a time and place for El Rancho and I’ll probably review them next time I go there. But last night, we put our Gault Millaud to the test and checked out La Colombe in Hyères. According to the guidebook, the quality of this restaurant has not changed in 20 years and that’s a good thing. They gave it two chefs hats or toqs and for the price of a menu – around 28 Euro – that’s a bargin.
We entered a plain looking house on the side of the road to a very clean, classy looking joint. The waiters were in black uniforms, the chef was greeting his clients at the door and we were glad we had put on our good clothes. They led us to a quiet terrace out back and suggested the aperitif de la maison – champagne with violet syrup.
Aren’t the glasses neat? I don’t often take a picture of wine or beverages, but the setting of these two flutes was just too pretty to pass up. Those are the husband’s hands waiting patiently for me to finish taking the picture so we could try the aperitif.
It was excellent. I didn’t get to ask what kind of champagne they used – but I doubt it was their top shelf which was considerably impressive. Violet flavoring seems to be the “in” thing in Provence this summer. I’m seeing it everywhere – especially in the glace à maison – homemade ice cream – of all the restaurants. This however was a new one and it was light, fresh and complimented the champagne well. Even better was that it went perfectly with the mis en bouche (literally “put in mouth”) – a tiny little dish to get your pallet going.
Purée of green peas with curry and a dash of cream served chilled. Again fresh, delicately spiced, the curry was just barely perceptible – there to tantalize only. The cookies are Parmesan – and the cookie texture, which I was unsure of at first – was actually kind of fun. I never thought a salted cookie would be tasty, but this was.
The first course was fleurs de courgette, caviar d’aubergine and Serrano ham. By fleurs de courgette I mean the flowers of the zucchini plant which is quite a delicacy and one I’d never had. Caviar d’aubergine is slow roasted eggplant with garlic and a dash of onion puréed and served on bread.
The flowers are stuffed with a zucchini purée themselves and served with balsamic vinegar. They were FANTASTIC. I’m not sure of the cooking method but my guess would be a quick trick in the frying pan over high heat. A bit of fresh crunchiness along with the sweet taste of the flowers offset by the vinegar and soft zucchini inside. A real delight.
The ham, which I don’t usually go for was light and well sliced – thin with minimal fat. The salt content was just right, especially for someone like me who hates salty foods. It brought out the flavor without making me need to drink a bottle of water afterwards. As for the caviar d’aubergine, all I have to say is this – mmmmmmmmmmmmm garlic.
To drink we had a heavy Chateauneuf du Pape. Probably not the best choice for 90° heat, but I can’t resist Chateauneuf. The degree was 14.5% and unfortunately by the time the main course was served, I was too – distracted – to remember to take a photo. Very simple, game bird turkey (pintade) with thyme and citron sauce. A nice, light potato purée was served underneath. It was flavorful and warm. The bird was tender, moist and came easily off the bone. That’s always a sign of quality cooking, if you don’t have perform small miracles of surgery with your knife and fork to pull the meat off the bone the chef knew how to cook a bird. Otherwise you just look like a moron trying desperately to not eat with your hands.
Then came dessert! Or rather THREE desserts!
This was La Colombe’s assiete des desserts which basically means dessert plate. To the bottom right is violet ice cream (what did I say about it being the flavor of the month?). It was strong in flavor, something you often don’t get with the violet ice cream, and obviously homemade. Not the smoothest, but rich and cooling on a hot summer evening after a hot meal.
The bottom right features a vanilla crème brulée. At any restaurant, this is a staple, and hard to mess. But the texture of this particular creme was really fantastic. So smooth, so simple, so soft. It was a pleasure to eat. I’m not sure exactly what made this creme so perfect – something in the way it was prepared clearly – but what the chef did to make it so smooth is beyond me.
And the last is a lemon mousse with strawberries and again a soft cream on the bottom to finish it off. Served cool, it was a delight to eat this last as the fresh citron flavor off set the taste of the strawberries, and as it wasn’t too sweet and very light it was the type of dessert that leaves you feeling cool, fresh and satisfied without feeling like you sat at the table for two hours (which we did).
By the way, I apologize for the quality of that last photograph – it was the Chateauneuf that made my hand shaky.
La Colombe is worth more than its price: without drinks the menu was 29 Euro each, a bargain considering the quality of food, service and flavor. The next menu up includes 5 courses and is only 34 Euro. The husband and I were both tempted but considering the heat, just couldn’t bring ourself to eat the promised tuna dish, veal dish and then cheese dish which followed. Once the weather gets cooler however, we’ll be there with empty stomachs! For our first Gault Millau find, we were definitely not disappointed.